NASA legend Katherine Johnson turns 100 years old this week

So much of what we know about spaceflight, the moon and beyond can be attributed to mathematician Katherine Johnson. During the United States' race to the stars against the Soviet Union, Johnson served as one of NASA's "Human Computers," noodling out complicated math problems with nothing more than the brawn of her brains, a bit of chalk and an immeasurable amount of will.


Johnson's most famous work, spotlighted in [the movie] "Hidden Figures," was for John Glenn's orbital mission in 1962. The mission required a complicated worldwide communications network. The mission's orbital calculations, which controlled the trajectory of the capsule for the mission, were programmed by a computer, but Glenn asked engineers to "get the girl" — referring to Katherine Johnson — to validate the calculations. She ran the same calculations by hand that the computer had run, and Glenn said, according to Johnson, "If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go."

As if being responsible for the math that put a man into orbit wasn't stress enough, Johnson also had to contend with the racist malarkey and misogyny that came part in parcel with being a black woman during the late 20th century (and the early 21st century, honestly.) As a white man, I'm in no position to say whether things are better today for women of any ethnic background than they were back then. But I want to believe that her guts and determination to do her job so well that Glenn entrusted her with his life helped pave a path for others to get a running start at beating workplace inequality and racism into the ground.

This weekend, Johnson will be celebrating her 100th birthday. It feels so good to see a towering, positive figure in our history enjoy such a long life.

Image via Wikipedia